WSU Cougars

WSU’s Xavier Cooper brings perseverance, pride in hometown Tacoma to NFL draft

When the NFL showered Xavier Cooper with workout gear at its scouting combine, he didn’t hoard it all to declare “I made it.”

The rising star at February’s combine in Indianapolis didn’t broadcast self-indulgent Instagram photos. He didn’t show off his dark-green sweat suits, shorts and matching shirts with the league’s 2015 combine logo on social media. Heck, he didn’t even have a Twitter account (@XavierCooper_96) until after the combine had started.

No, the Washington State defensive tackle and now early entrant in next week’s draft, sent most of his first NFL gear back to Tacoma.

His pride in sharing his first league swag equals the pride he has in his hometown.

“I just sent a lot of gear that I got from the combine and that I got from training back to my high school. So that’s what I do,” Cooper said. “It was in my heart.”

The gear came with a message to the kids at his alma mater, Wilson High School, and to anyone listening beyond.

“I just tell the kids to dream, really. Don’t let anybody stop you from what you want to do,” he said. “There is nobody in this world that is self-made, but there are a lot of people that are self-motivated. And I believe that’s me.”

That’s why he gives back to Tacoma. That combine gear. A recent clinic with fellow Wilson graduate Desmond Trufant at the Henry T. Schatz branch of the Boys and Girls Club.

“It’s important because … I believe those kids deserve that opportunity, and not everybody has the support system,” Cooper said. “I had a support system with two parents in the household. So I’m just blessed coming back to talk to kids and help them.

“A lot of people helped me. But I’ve always been the one to wake up every day and go out there and get what I deserve. Hard work has got me here.”

Cooper has gone from not playing football until ninth grade, from being diagnosed with a learning disability, from getting exactly one major college scholarship offer very late in the recruiting process — by a coach and neighbor from his neighborhood near the Narrows Bridge — to being a standout at the combine.

He’s planning a draft party on the weekend of April 30-May 2. He’ll be with his parents and friends at his family’s Titlow Beach-area home, awaiting a call from an NFL team telling him he has — previously improbably — been drafted.

“He’s not your typical college student. He’s not your typical 20-year-old male,” said Heather Irwin, a learning specialist and academic advisor at WSU.

She has been guiding Cooper from his first day at Wazzu through last week. That’s when Cooper included among his final pre-draft workouts a visit in Irwin’s office in Pullman. There he set a plan to finish the final eight credits he needs to graduate with a criminology degree. He wants to pursue a master’s degree like mom (Dawn) and dad (Louis Cooper Jr.) so he can be a principal back home in Tacoma.

“He definitely has a lot of solid, mature, real-world values,” Irwin said.

“I’m …” she added, her voice stopping, “SO extremely proud of him.”

She’s not alone.

“A PERSEVERANCE IN ‘X’ ”

Cooper is so totally Tacoma, his new Twitter page’s picture is one of the city’s downtown skyline taken from across I-5 with the signature wooden roof of the Tacoma Dome in the foreground.

The currently 6-foot-3, 293-pound tackle began playing select soccer in the city and then AAU basketball as a not-so-small forward.

Before age 10 he was active at a neighborhood YMCA with his father, a former NAIA football All-American at Doane College in Nebraska. Louis Cooper was friends with Zachary Smalls, a patrol officer on the North Tacoma beat for the Tacoma Police Department.

Smalls runs a speed and agility training camp, Zee Speed, summer mornings inside Stadium Bowl for athletes 12 years old through high-school graduation (his next camp starts July 16).

Smalls walked on to coach Jim Walden’s Washington State team in the early 1980s and stuck as a fiendishly working wide receiver. Decades later he invited 10-year-old Xavier to Zee Speed, even though Cooper was two years younger than the minimum age Smalls had set for his camp.

“I noticed a perseverance in ‘X,’ ” Smalls said this month, 23 years into his career at Tacoma PD.

With the jump-start in speed training and his already man-like size, Cooper began to flourish athletically by the time he was a freshman at Wilson, his first year of organized football. But that year he was diagnosed with a learning disability. He rebelled at the diagnosis and the initial compensation strategies he received for the classroom.

His drive and newfound excellence in football kept him engaged enough at Wilson, but only to just get by. He fell so behind in academics the scholarship overtures he began getting from many Pac-12 Conference schools appeared impractical. He seemed destined for a junior college. His parents feared that circuitous route wouldn’t re-engage him academically.

“He was at risk,” Smalls said of those years he was training him. “Not ‘at risk’ in that he was always in trouble; ‘X’ was never in trouble — I’m a police officer. I know what kids are in trouble.

“I label kids like ‘X’ as ‘youth of promise.’ It was just a part of the education component that was giving him the potential to slip through the cracks.”

ENTER MIKE LEVENSELLER

Mike Levenseller didn’t enter Cooper’s life as much as Washington State’s former assistant coach simply entered his own neighborhood. Levenseller returned during a Cougars’ offseason to the home he has owned for two decades.

It just so happens that home was down the hill from Cooper’s and Smalls’. Levenseller also grew up near the Narrows Bridge and graduated from Curtis High.

He had homegrown contacts with coach Don Clegg and his staff at Wilson. That’s how he knew Cooper was playing on the school’s basketball team during one football offseason.

“I went and watched the kid at a basketball practice. I only knew his name. He was BIG!” Levenseller said this month by phone from Pullman. He has kept a home there since WSU let him and the rest of Paul Wulff’s staff go following the Cougars’ 2011 season.

“He took the ball, took one rock step and just threw that thing down. I went ‘Holy cow!’ ”

A defensive tackle on his way to 300 pounds who could dunk off one step?

“That really intrigued me,” Levenseller said.

He went to the Wilson High counseling office to learn about Cooper’s grades, which had every other Pac-12 and major college recruiter running back to their campuses. But Levenseller dug in. He explored ways to get Cooper into WSU directly rather than through a junior college.

Cooper was likely headed to lower-division Eastern Washington — if Levenseller hadn’t believed in Cooper as much as Cooper and his family believed in him.

Levenseller formed a plan with the Coopers and the Wilson staff to catch him up academically for admission to WSU. He asked Cooper to sign with Washington State’s 2010 recruiting class but then “grayshirt” — delaying his enrollment to January 2011.

Levenseller presented the idea during the easiest living room visit he ever made.

“That home visit,” Levenseller said, still laughing over it. “Probably within 60 seconds of leaving my driveway I was standing in his driveway.”

Cooper accepted and spent the fall of 2010 taking classes at Tacoma Community College to make up for lost credits. He completed the final ones he needed to enroll at WSU.

Then the Cougars redshirted Cooper for the ’11 season. Though almost every freshman thinks he’s good enough to play now, the redshirt on top of grayshirt gave Cooper exactly what he needed: more than a year to adjust academically and socially to college.

“It’s the old adage,” Levenseller said, “’If you can just get them through a year …’ ”

ENTER HEATHER IRWIN

“Heather was an angel for him,” Levenseller said.

Heather Irwin was WSU’s academic adviser assigned to Cooper. He didn’t just attend required sessions with her and fellow tutors, he sought extra meetings with them.

Cooper’s critically soft landing at WSU allowed him to take full ownership of his responsibilities on and off the field — and fully manage that learning disability. He didn’t just get by, he flourished in the classroom.

He bulled through academic challenges and compensatory strategies like overmatched linemen. To conquer the daunting challenges of writing papers, he prepared detailed outlines for each assignment. He was proactive. He was prepared.

And he indeed conquered.

“I’m proud of him,” Irwin said. “I know this (the NFL) is his dream. I have all the faith in the world in him. He’s just one of the most driven, determined people I’ve met.”

As Levenseller added: “Really, it all comes back on ‘X.’ He pushed. He did the work.”

In three seasons he plowed through Pac-12 blockers to become a dark horse NFL prospect. When he declared this winter for the draft following his redshirt junior season, some wondered if he’d be drafted. Then he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.86 seconds at the combine, the fastest there for a defensive lineman projected solely as a tackle.

Now Cooper getting drafted isn’t considered an “if” but a “when.”

The Coopers think so much of what Levenseller did for their son they’ve invited him to be at their Tacoma house for Xavier’s draft party.

So what will those who helped Cooper get from then to now feel when they see his name as one selected into the NFL?

“I’m going to be extremely proud,” Smalls said. “It’s an honor to see what he has done.

“My man has it going on because he is always about Tacoma. He knows where he came from. Sometimes people forget where they started.”

What does Irwin, whose job has been to ensure Cooper succeeds academically and graduates from WSU, think of him leaving after early to the NFL?

“I told him: ‘You BETTER get that degree!’ ” the academic counselor said, laughing. “And I have no doubts in the world he will finish it. I know he is working so hard to reach that goal, too.

“He hears it from his mom. He hears it from his dad. He will finish it. He will succeed with that, too.”

And what about the neighbor who took the easiest, perhaps most satisfying recruiting visit of his coaching career, the one that gave Cooper the chance few others would?

“I’ll be proud as the coach who recruited him, and he made it,” Levenseller said. “And also, I’m a Tacoma guy. When one of yours makes it, from your town, you take pride in that alone.

“You take pride in that it wasn’t a slam dunk for him to get here. And for that, you have to put it back on him.”

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